Thurner Does The Math

Thurner Does The Math

A biology and mathematics major at Albion College, Stephanie Thurner wasn't sure how the two disciplines would intersect as she prepares for a career in marine biology.

As it turns out, the research she conducted on the variation in the reproduction in eelgrass at the Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, Wash., last summer turned into a poster presented at the Joint Mathematics Meeting in Atlanta during the break between semesters.

"I never thought about doing modeling – about how I would use math in my career," Thurner said. "I thought I would have a background in math and how it would make doing my statistics pretty easy.

"I was given a book, I had to learn new math on my own," Thurner said of the project that required her to work with a population model created by field data collection and estimates from other locations. "I'm not going to say the math was beyond what I could understand, but it was the first time it wasn't guided by somebody which is way more realistic. When you're a scientist doing work you're not going to know all the math you need to know."

Thurner explained how her summer work, funded by the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates, has changed the direction of her career.

Eelgrass is one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet – declining at a rate as fast as coral reefs and rainforests – but it can reproduce in different ways. In addition to finding that asexual reproduction is more influential in the recovery of the species, eelgrass recovers faster on the edges of the population.

Once interested in influencing conservation efforts, her focus has evolved into making a direct impact through stock assessments where biologists provide fisheries managers with the information that is used in the regulation of a fish stock, or setting catch limits to insure the survival of subpopulations of a particular species of fish.

With her career protecting the net for the Briton volleyball team complete – she finished third on the school's all-time list for blocks – and graduation from Albion looming at the end of the semester, Thurner is in the process of finding the graduate program that is the right fit for her research interest.

"Originally, it was all in my head about helping the animals," Thurner said. "I've realized from talking to people when I was out in Washington – from the Department of Natural Resources and the (Native American) tribes – the importance of keeping people and animals happy.

"I read a book with 50 letters from leading conservation biologists across the world about how they stay inspired in spite of the grim reality of the future of the planet," she added. "I was inspired by many of the letters, and was able to take a few key phrases to heart, including that 'people can learn to care', the 'consequences of our small choices really matters', and that it is important to be both realistic and optimistic. These lessons will carry with me into graduate school.

"I'm still going to be a biologist, but it will be more applied work where the impact is direct and I will get to see the impact of the changes in my lifetime," she concluded.

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